Matter of fact

I am an intellectual and cultural historian of early modern science, on Habilitation track at the Institute of Philosophy,  History of Literature, Science and Technology of Technische Universität, Berlin.

My work focuses on the origins and development of empiricism in early modern Europe. I am especially interested in practical knowledge and the history of experimentation (broadly conceived). I look at fields like natural philosophy, instrument making and material culture, and antiquarianism. I also have a strong interest in early modern England: particularly, the early Stuart period and Francis Bacon. I am currently the holder of a 3-year project grant, “The Weight of Things. Quantification of Matter and the Exchange of Technical and Learned Knowledge in Early Modern Europe,” financed by the German Research Foundation (DFG).

I am originally from Italy. There, I studied Greek and Latin, history and philosophy and got a B.Sc. in Physics. I also studied in England and the United States (Lancaster University, Imperial College, and Indiana University) and completed a Ph.D. in history and philosophy of science at Indiana University (2011), with a dissertation on Francis Bacon, experiment, and early Stuart culture.

Afterward, I was a fellow at the Science History Institute in Philadelphia, a postdoctoral fellow at the Berlin Center for the History of Knowledge and a senior research fellow at the Vossius Center for History of Humanities and Sciences (University of Amsterdam). I also worked for eight years in two leading digital history projects: The Chymistry of Isaac Newton and The Newton Project.

Recent and upcoming talks:

5 November 2019. The Quantification of Matter in Early Modern Europe: The Evidence from Mathematical Instruments. Deutsches Museum, Munich.

12-15 June 2019. The Features of the Early Modern Study of Ancient Measures. Conference: Scientiae. Disciplines of Knowing in the Early Modern Period. Queen’s University, Belfast.

10-11 May 2019. The early modern investigation of ancient measures: a comparative approach. Workshop: Beyond Ancients and Moderns. Comparative approaches to the reception of the classical tradition in early modern Europe, c. 1600–1750. All Souls, Oxford.

1-2 April 2019. The Features of Early Modern English Antiquarian Metrology. Workshop: Antiquarian ‘Science’ in the Scholarly Society. Society of Antiquaries of London.

Recent work:

The early modern investigation of ancient measures: a comparative approach. In preparation for Dmitri Levitin and Ian Maclean, eds., Beyond Ancients and Moderns. Comparative Approaches to the Reception of the Classical Tradition in Early Modern Europe, c. 1600–1750.Oxford-Warburg Studies. Oxford University Press.
Abstract: The early modern antiquarian investigation of ancient systems of units of measurement is a substantially overlooked subject. Interest in the study and precise determination of Roman, Greek and Hebrew measures overlapped several different domains. It indeed regarded scholars with narrower antiquarian concerns for the reconstruction of classical and biblical knowledge. However, it also often coexisted with unexpected, more current agendas from a broader set of disciplines and practices. Present-day interests were, for instance, relevant for proponents of monetary reforms, who found useful material and examples while studying ancient units of weight.  The precise determination of Roman and Greek measures was also crucial for humanist-trained physicians who tried to replicate and correctly prepare drugs according to the recipes of the Hippocratic Corpus and Galenic pharmacological texts. Furthermore, civic officers and scholars attempting to improve contemporary unit systems paid close attention to the literature and tradition of the antiquarian treatises de ponderibus et mensuris. he determination of ancient units of length spurred similar antiquarian concerns among early modern architects and cartographers. This initial sketch delineates a composite cultural environment in which very different disciplines often shared subjects and practices of investigation, in a constant interaction between the philological and critical study of ancient texts and material culture, and the test and refinement of acquired knowledge on concrete and practical cases. However, it seems that this commonality of methods was put to the service of different interests and needs, which were in turn shaped by local and historical constraints. To give just one example, Jean Bodin’s antiquarian reflections on coinage acquire their full sense only in the contexts of the projects of economic and monetary reforms of late sixteenth-century France. Adopting a comparative approach, this paper will consider how such local determinants shaped this broader, multidisciplinary antiquarian inquiry.

Describing an overlooked experimental tradition: Johannes Kepler and the investigation of specific gravities in the long sixteenth century
Abstract: At a given volume, different substances can be identified by their particular weight, or specific gravity. Numerous early modern experimentalists, including Galileo Galilei, Francis Bacon and Thomas Harriot, viewed this seemingly humble principle as a fundamental key to the understanding of nature in general. Specific gravities were sought for a bewildering variety of materials, ranging from ivory to loadstone and sheep blood. However, it is not well known that the celebrated German astronomer and mathematician Johannes Kepler was also very much interested in this notion. In fact, one of his least studied works, the Messekunst Archimedis of 1616, contains a striking summary and discussion of the experimental research on specific gravities in the long sixteenth century. In particular, Kepler listed an extensive group of authors (himself included), working on the problem of the determination of the specific gravities of substances. In his account, Kepler did not just mention natural philosophers or mathematicians interested in Archimedes. Surprisingly, his examination included contributions from humanists, instrument makers, antiquarians and assayers. Kepler’s analysis is exceptional because it gives the modern reader an entry point to an overlooked early modern experimental tradition that strongly differs from current historiographical views on this subject. Received histories of specific gravities have often focused on antecedents of modern disciplinary concepts and methodologies. Instead, Kepler’s account suggests the existence of an unexpected, heterogeneous group of early modern experts involved in experimental work on the quantification of matter, at the intersection between the history of science and the history of the humanities.

Alchemy and the Electric Spirit in Isaac Newton’s General Scholium. in S. Ducheyne, S. Mandelbrote and S. Snobelen (eds.), Newton’s General Scholium After 300 Years (forthcoming, 2020)

The Baconian Natural and Experimental Histories as an Epistemic Genre.” Submitted Draft.
Abstract: In 1622, Francis Bacon published his Historia naturalis et experimentalis. Many of the features of Bacon’s natural and experimental histories were entirely new. This paper studies this literary form as a new epistemic genre. In particular, it analyzes its origin and evolution in Bacon’s work, focusing on how its basic template and features were influenced by Bacon’s specific epistemic requirements. It shows that Bacon devised these features in the process of developing a Historia mechanica, or a history of the mechanical arts, drawing on the particular case of the technical recipe. From antiquity, the recipe had been the dominant epistemic genre for recording and communicating technical knowledge.  However, this paper suggests that the recipe format did not meet Francis Bacon’s epistemic necessities. In particular, this format was incompatible with the goal of keeping experimentation and its reporting open-ended and flexible. More generally, the acknowledgment of the provisional, historical character of knowledge was a tenet of what Bacon called an ‘initiative’ method of knowledge transmission or a method of ‘probation.’ According to this approach, knowledge ‘ought to be delivered and intimated, if it were possible, in the same method wherein it was invented’ and discovered.  Only the display of its tentative features would encourage and stimulate others to improve and advance it. The format of the new genre of natural and experimental histories grew out of Bacon’s dissatisfaction with the way in which recipes hid the imperfection of the process of knowledge production.